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Here’s a new one: A political candidate who refuses campaign donations.

That’s what Stephen Clark, candidate for Superior Court judge, has done leading up to the June 8 primary. When friends and former colleagues in the legal community found out the retired federal prosecutor was running for an open seat on the San Diego Superior Court bench, they offered to hold fundraisers and contribute to his campaign.

But Clark turned them down.

He’s not using a consultant. He has raised zero dollars. And he has held no fundraisers. Clark said fundraising makes him uncomfortable because donors typically would be lawyers and law firms who could appear before him if he wins.

“I don’t want to imply I’ve put myself on some kind of higher moral plain, I’m just not comfortable with it,” Clark said. “It would be a good thing for the public that one could succeed without going out and raising money, but we’ll see.”

Clark is running against private attorney Jim Miller, who describes himself as a judge pro tem, a civil settlement conference judge, a certified arbitrator and an NFL agent who is backed by the Republican Party, four firefighters associations and a handful of retired Superior Court judges; and Deputy District Attorney Richard Monroy, who has the coveted support of his boss, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, retired Sheriff Bill Kolender, 15 law enforcement organizations, 31 Superior Court judges and 69 prosecutors in the Deputy District Attorney’s office.

Clark is supported by 11 Superior Court judges plus five former San Diego U.S. attorneys — Carol Lam, Charles La Bella, William Braniff, James W. Brannigan and Peter K. Nunez. He’s received a top rating, “well qualified,” from the San Diego County Bar Association, as has Monroy. Miller was rated as “lacking qualifications.”

In any other race, an empty bank account would be the death knell of a campaign. But judicial races traditionally are less about the money and more about qualifications, political experts said.

“In a judge race, the ballot statement really is what gives you a shot,” said Jennifer Tierney, a political consultant who is running several judicial campaigns, including Monroy’s. “But that’s still an interesting approach. I’ve heard of people not taking money from a certain industry, but not no money overall. I’m not sure why you would choose that path.”

Fundraising levels in judicial races are typically very low, averaging between $25,000 to $75,000 per candidate, Tierney said. Monroy, for instance, has raised $24,000 so far.

Tierney said Clark is still in the race by virtue of his background as a prosecutor.

“That’s really what levels the field for them,” she said of Clark and Monroy. She noted that in the last matchup between a state prosecutor and federal one — Deputy District Attorney Dave Hendren and Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph P. Brannigan — the fed won the seat. Judge Brannigan has endorsed Clark.

Those who know Clark weren’t surprised he didn’t want the money.

“It’s just the kind of guy he is,” said La Bella. “He absolutely has only one interest — to do the public’s work. He would be his own judge, judge things on the merits, not because anyone’s going to try to influence him one way or another. That’s the beauty of it, but in the real world of politics it doesn’t always work that way.”

Clark was the second-in-command at the San Diego U.S. attorney’s office under four top prosecutors — Alan Bersin, La Bella, Lam and Karen Hewitt — until his retirement in September 2007. He is a decorated Vietnam war veteran and career prosecutor who spent 30 years with the Department of Justice, including 18 years in San Diego.

As a prosecutor, Clark handled cases involving political corruption, corrupt judges, Medicare fraud, tax fraud, Ponzi schemes, bank robberies, murder conspiracy, violent crimes, human trafficking, involuntary servitude, and drug offenses.

How does Clark expect to be elected with no money?

“That’s a good question,” he said. “The bottom line is, it’s a very daunting process even if you have a lot of money. There are hundreds of thousands of voters you have to reach.”

Contact Kelly Thornton directly at kellythornton7407@yahoo.com. And follow her on Twitter @kellymthornton.

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